Is American Exceptionalism Inescapable?

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Andrew Hartman wrote a fascinating piece over at the blog of the Society for US Intellectual History a few weeks back. In it, he grapples with the question of whether or not it is possible to “study this thing we call America, even from a Marxist or leftist vantage point, without reifying the American nation as an exceptional cultural or political category.” I would be so bold as to answer his question, “No.” In this piece, I’ll attempt to explain this answer by considering how Hartman describes exceptionalism.

Hartman starts off by referencing Michael Denning’s 1986 American Quarterly article, in which he critiques the legitimacy of the basic question animating the discipline of American Studies—“What is American?” Hartman writes,

For Denning, using that question as a methodological starting point is problematic because it assumes that “America” (shorthand for the United States, or the culture of the United States, or for the idea that animates the culture of the United States) is exceptional. American Studies, understood as such, is the product of American exceptionalism, and, since American exceptionalism is something that all correct-thinking individuals must reject, perhaps American Studies is something we should reject, too.

Hartman is being a bit sarcastic here (as he admits in a statement later in the comments section). Still, Denning’s critique poses a question about American Studies that has far-reaching ramifications for the study of American history, sociology, religion, economics, and diplomacy. If exceptionalism is rejected, does that, in turn, mean that the legitimacy of American Studies itself is undermined? And does the very appellation “American Studies” render the field nonsensical because it is overly provincial? If I take Hartman correctly, I’d say that this is what he means in his title by the “specter haunting American Studies.”

In the next paragraph, Hartman describes his understanding of exceptionalism in two ways. He writes,

Of course, the idea of American exceptionalism has (at least) two meanings, and different political valences stem from these different meanings. To some, the concept of American exceptionalism means that America is better than other countries—a beacon of freedom or a “city on a hill.” America, right or wrong, but usually right. To others, it means, simply, that America is different, particularly in comparison to Europe. In this second meaning, “exceptional” is stripped of its normative claims. The fact that America is unique is not an indication that it is better; rather, it often indicates the opposite.

Hartman is right to steer clear of ambiguity here at the outset of his article. And I agree with how he divides the concept of exceptionalism into two distinct expressions. But I would like to offer another possible way to understand exceptionalism. As Hartman says, there is the imperialist expression of exceptionalism—America as a city on a hill. Let’s call this one “closed exceptionalism.” And there is the “different, not special” expression. This could be called “conditional exceptionalism.”

The problems with closed exceptionalism are pretty obvious. It’s exclusivist and jingoistic at its heart. It is also far too epistemically certain when it comes to how it conceives of the nation’s interaction with the divine. And the problems with conditional exceptionalism, as a working definition for the concept, are significant also, especially in their practical application. If exceptionalism is to be understood as merely “different, not better” how is one to study American culture and history defined in such a way? This formulation of exceptionalism does not seem to appear prominently in American history or literature. Even considering “Anti-American Studies,” we have a situation where America is either loved or hated on its own terms. In either case, America is reified. The ambivalence of conditional exceptionalism just doesn’t seem to have much of a potential contribution to the study of culture in America.

I propose a third way to understand exceptionalism, one that I’ll call “open exceptionalism.” Open exceptionalism sees America as an exemplar. Like its imperialist cousin, open exceptionalism is civil-religious. It is based on a canon, what Robert Bellah famously identified as an American civil religious Old and New Testament canon in his essay “Civil Religion in America.” The American Old Testament consists of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and any number of other founding documents. The American New Testament, arising forth from the trauma of the Civil War, consists of the Gettysburg Address, Emancipation Proclamation, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. This exemplarist brand does recognize God’s providence in American history, but takes on a decidedly agnostic approach as to how it is understood and applied. Finally, open exceptionalism recognizes that the principles of equality, natural rights, individual freedom, and justice are ideals which are to be pursued and applied to all, but may never be fully realized. Given this reality, open exceptionalism entails national self-examination and self-critique, and is never satisfied with the status quo. The speeches and writings of Lincoln, W. E. B. DuBois, and MLK, Jr. (to name a few) seem to suggest them as possible examples of open exceptionalist figures.

If such an expression of exceptionalism is valid, then I think it is key to answering Hartman’s question. He observes that Michael Kazin argued in American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, that the American radicals appealed to the Declaration of Independence as an authority to legitimize their agendas of social and political justice. In doing so, they acknowledged that America was established on a set of ethical norms, and those norms were intended to transcend circumstance and generation. Further, when those norms were violated, there was something palpably “un-American” going on that cried out for correction. And that is exactly what we find when we look at King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, to take one example among many.

Thinking about America as exceptional does not necessarily entail the many pitfalls of exclusivism or imperialism. An exemplarist account of exceptionalism allows for the flaws, inconsistencies, and moral failures which are inevitable realities in any culture. I would argue, in fact, that exemplarist exceptionalism demands their acknowledgement, but also, their rectification through whatever means necessary.

In terms of whether or not we can “study this thing we call America, even from a Marxist or leftist vantage point, without reifying the American nation as an exceptional cultural or political category,” again, I do not think it can be done. Hartman points out in a later comment that “even Denning, I think, ignores his own advice in his book ‘The Cultural Front,’ because there’s no other way to study America, and that’s OK.” And I would suggest that the reason this is so is because open exceptionalism is the most consistent expression of the concept appearing in American cultural forms.

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